Actress Barbara Eaker shines on bay area stages

The actress is a pretty face, but so much more.

Barbara Eaker is arguably the most beautiful actress in the Bay area, but she doesn't seem to know it. Whereas another woman with her looks would have taken off for the Coast years ago, Eaker continues to live in Odessa, to audition for parts that are about emotion and intelligence, and to cherish a dream of perhaps one day testing the waters in New York City — after she's accumulated enough money. A 30-something graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she turns up on area stages every few months, and supports herself the rest of the time with odd jobs like dealing cards, representing Gillette razors and looking after other people's pets.

Currently she's in A Body of Water at Gorilla Theatre — a play about two amnesiacs at the mercy of their devious daughter (Eaker) — and she brings to her role so much malice and impatience that you want to shout at her, "Give them a break already, they've got enough trouble as it is!" But the play wouldn't work without Eaker's canny interpretation, and her ability to play with the audience's confusion is stunning. I've liked her work before, but in Water she's made a real breakthrough.

I sat down with Eaker (pronounced Ay-ker) recently at the Carrollwood Barnes & Noble. She told me that she's originally from Miami, but moved with her family to Lake Placid, N.Y. ("not a lot going on there"), headed south to Pinellas Park after graduating from high school and performed in community and dinner theater. She was "a starving artist" who supported herself by working for a dry cleaner, and then decided to start a murder mystery dinner theater company, Mystery Works.

Her company had no fixed venue, instead performing in hotels, restaurants and at private parties. Finally in 2004, in her early 30s, she went back to New York to attend the Academy, but after she finished its two-year program, "I checked my wallet, found there was nothing in it, and came back." She settled in Odessa with her boyfriend, played in Stageworks Briefs and then was asked by artistic director Anna Brennen to act in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tatoo. That was followed by Sartre's No Exit at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, and several other plays on professional stages — including Aunt Dan and Lemon, Private Lives, and Look Back in Anger.

She was particularly pleased to have a role in Private Lives — "I like comedies; I laugh a lot during the day and I like to make people laugh, too" — and delighted in a part in Noise Off in upstate New York. Eaker's in no mad rush to vacate the Bay area, but she's trying to build up the savings that will allow her to devote herself to auditioning in New York.

Her objective as an actress is "to bring as much of myself to it as I can without letting myself take over." And she's not afraid to let a demanding director push her to extend her limits. An example is Brennen, who directed her in A Body of Water. "I believe she has the reputation for being harsh, but the fact is she knows what she's doing, she knows what she's talking about, and she expects to get from her actors what they're capable of, which sometimes they don't even know," Eaker says "And she will get it out of you. If you listen, and you take it in, you will be better."

As to Tampa Bay theater in general, the actress wishes there were more of it, but feels encouraged by the success of Jobsite and Hat Trick. Still, she often encounters people who love film but treat going to the theater as "a kind of throwback activity."

Eaker is modest and charming, and concerned that her looks — which she only speaks of reluctantly — may keep her from getting choice roles. But if her work in A Body of Water is any indication, she's grown in her years here and is now a potently skillful performer. Check out her acting if you get the chance — and don't be fooled by appearances.

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